CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers’ near-perfect postseason — a precision-like 12-1 romp through three Eastern Conference would-be contenders highlighted by an offensive efficiency through the opening rounds more explosive than even the best the Showtime Lakers ever mustered — came to a crashing halt against the “juggernaut” known as the Golden State Warriors this week.
Juggernaut is LeBron James‘ word, dropped before the NBA Finals “Threematch” with the Warriors even began and then again Wednesday night after Golden State went up 3-0 on the Cavs with a soul-crushing 11-0 spurt in the final 3 minutes, 8 seconds that all but ended Cleveland’s repeat bid.
Sure, last season the Cavs became the first team in league history to come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit against this same Warriors franchise. But it wasn’t this same Warriors team. This Warriors team has won 30 of its past 31 games. This Warriors team has Kevin Durant averaging 34 points on 56.1 percent shooting in the Finals; that Warriors team had Harrison Barnes averaging 9.3 points on 35.2 percent shooting playing the same position. This Warriors team has Stephen Curry on two healthy legs. This Warriors team has Draymond Green controlling his habit of striking the opponent in the groin. This Warriors team is hell-bent on revenge.
Winning four games in a row not only would be unfathomable against this particular Golden State group, but it also would buck an enormous trend: The 126 previous teams in this 0-3 position lost the series.
So again, barring the most incredible feat in basketball history occurring — starting with Game 4 on Friday — the pressing question becomes: Where do the Cavs go from here?
ESPN.com polled more than 30 executives, coaches, scouts, agents and players from around the NBA to find options to answer that query.
At perhaps any other time since the league’s inception, being a team coming off three straight Finals appearances with a lineup featuring three All-Stars in their prime would be a great spot to be in. A perfect spot, even. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
But not in today’s NBA with the Beast from The Bay lurking.
“They’re a great team, but I think we’re a great team also,” Cleveland coach Ty Lue said of Golden State after Game 3. Only the greatest get rings, however.
The Cavs have to come to terms with a path to pursue and who will be charting the course. Settling on a direction with general manager David Griffin, whose contract expires June 30, as quickly as possible is paramount. Either he is the guy or he’s not — and he should be the guy if you listen to anyone in the franchise from James at the top down to longtime business operations personnel who swear by his leadership — but if he’s not, his replacement has to be found immediately so the team can plan its summer.
There is a fundamental decision that has to be made to inform every subsequent move: Stand pat with what they’ve got at the core and hope the team doesn’t start the 2018 Finals shooting 31-for-104 from 3 as it has this series — believing that pitiful performance is more of an outlier than a sign of ineptitude in the face of the Warriors’ ferocious defense — or shake things up?
Guys like James Jones and Dahntay Jones have been invaluable to the Cavs’ culture, but they are past the point where they can be relied upon to give 15 to 20 consistent minutes. Deron Williams was acceptable at best on defense in his prime but made up for it with a brilliant offensive skill set. Both aspects of his game have regressed significantly, and with him starting the Finals 0-for-11 from the field, it would seem folly to make Williams a big part of future plans.
Because of their cap situation — fielding the most expensive roster in NBA history in consecutive seasons — the Cavs will be in repeater tax next season. This season they are paying $24 million in tax. If they have the exact same payroll next season, they’d pay $38 million in tax. Obviously, with built-in raises on the books already, plus the need to re-sign Kyle Korver — a shooter who could command something in the range of the $14 million-a-year deal that Jamal Crawford signed last summer on the open market — their payroll will likely go up, meaning their subsequent luxury-tax figure could spike to the $50 million range.
Which puts all the more pressure on the Cavs to regroup in the right way. Sure, winning another championship is the goal to serve James’ legacy and reward Cleveland sports fans, but there is also the bottom-line challenge of: What’s the point in Cavs owner Dan Gilbert spending close to $150 million in salary costs alone just to finish in second place? Odds are they can’t just add talent using the midlevel exception and veterans minimum signing incentives that will bridge the gap with the Warriors. So the challenge becomes swapping talent and hoping (A) the pieces they currently have spur interest around the league and (B) the pieces they acquire could be difference-makers.
How valuable is Iman Shumpert? Can he get you a Jae Crowder, as one Western Conference coach threw out there? Is there a way to upgrade Richard Jefferson, who turns 37 this month, with another backup for James who can provide more consistent offense off the bench when James takes a breather?
Is Tristan Thompson‘s underwhelming Finals performance an indicator that they should move on from him? Do the Cavs ask themselves what good is having a player play such a big role on your team the entire season if his game isn’t suited to the gauntlet that Golden State puts you in? One agent suggested that the Thompson deal is not tradable even if they wanted to, saying, “The game is changing on those real limited offensive guys unless he’s getting 15 boards and/or blocking shots. He’s a nonfactor.”
James has known what the Cavs need for a while now. Back in January, seeing the roster deficiencies up close day in and day out, James went off after a loss in New Orleans, calling Cleveland a “top-heavy” team and exposing the Cavs’ dearth of playmakers for all to hear.
There is immense pressure on James and Irving to carry the team and make things happen on offense. Over the course of an 82-game season, it’s a lot to handle. The Cavs have become so reliant on James, they can completely collapse even when he subs out for a minute or two, as was the case in Game 3 of the Finals when Cleveland was a plus-7 in the 46 minutes James played and a minus-12 in the two minutes he didn’t.
“I hate the fact that we’re not able to, you know, just try to keep the leads, and if I come out of the game or not, even keep the leads, just sustain it,” James said. “I hate it for my teammates, I hate it for myself, I hate it for everybody that’s involved. So, something we have to figure out.”
Patience will be in high demand this offseason. But how do you be patient as the runner-up without feeling complacent? One West exec wondered, “How do you blow up a team that’s been to three straight Finals? I think they ride it out, make some tweaks.” Of course, the counter is, how can tweaks catch them up to a team that’s being compared to one of the best of all time?
Another agent summed it up thusly: “They can’t get better. Just hope Iggy [Andre Iguodala] and some other Warriors move on.” And this plan sounds sort of like the student who doesn’t cram for the exam because he’s banking on a school cancellation. The only benefit from losing to the Warriors for the second time in three years is the psychological conch goes back to the Cavs’ camp. They will be the ones seeking vengeance next season rather than simply out to “add some ice cream when they’ve already had cake,” as one league source close to the Cavs suggested this 2017 playoff run has been about after the thrill of the 2016 title.
They can take that mental edge and use it to fuel training camp, stressing the defensive habits they’ve failed to establish this season by reminding the team of how devastating and embarrassing the Warriors’ offense can be when it has gone unchecked. “Their GM is offense-minded, and Ty Lue has lost his focus on defense since becoming head coach,” a source said. “This has got to be an adjustment no matter what the roster is.”
So, what now for the Cavs, we ask again?
“If their roster stayed the same,” one Western Conference assistant said, “they get to the Finals again — no one is knocking them off in the East.”
And therein lies the problem. A fourth straight Finals for any franchise would be sublime. But losing to the same team three times in four years once you get there? Simply sickening.
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